Asking the Right Questions

Designing truly great retail spaces is far more than coming up with award-winning ideas or clever communications. Even the coolest looking retail space is meaningless unless the brand positioning and store designs are firmly rooted in a thorough understanding of consumer needs, behaviors, and attitudes.

As store and brand design become more integrated in boutique shops as well as strongly branded supermarkets, learning about specific kinds of consumers and potential consumers becomes even more vital to a brand's success. There are a number of frequently used research techniques that can help, but knowing when to use each one will make the process much more efficient. These techniques will help you pinpoint the habits, thoughts, and motivations of consumers, and how they react to your store or brand. After all, it is your customers who should be dictating the look, feel, and operation of your retail store, as well as package design.

How do you get a handle on what's really important to customers? The solution is thoughtfully crafted research using the right methods for the job at hand.

The modern marketing or brand executive has a choice of numerous research methodologies and technologies to study current customers, former customers, and prospects. Selecting the best methodology for a particular task may not be obvious. This article takes a closer look at some tried-and-true research practices and provides some useful guidelines for optimizing results.

Ethnography — learning by observing in context

Long before gaining its current popularity as a research tool, cultural anthropologists were studying human behavior by observation. Today, customer "shadowing" is a research technique for understanding consumer behavior in a retail environment and homes during product use occasions. In such cases, research professionals blend in with shoppers to see first-hand how consumers behave in an environment, what they look at, where they linger, what they ignore, and what do they might have trouble understanding.

In more recent years, video cameras have been used to capture and analyze behavior. The video camera is particularly effective in environments where it would be difficult to hide an observer. You don't want shoppers to behave differently because they think they are being watched. Video observation can also keep costs down in situations where there are only a few shoppers to observe over the course of many hours.
The problem with any kind of observational research is that we must rely upon the analyst to note and explain behavior. The ethnographic analysis is only as good as the skill of the interpreter of customer behavior. Finding an experienced professional is vital.

Observation, by itself, is most valuable for studying active behaviors: learning by watching how long someone stands in front of a display or menu board before ordering/taking action; how someone handles a power tool in use; how someone touches or grips an appliance in a retail display; how someone juggles a Styrofoam sandwich container to open it; etc.

However, observation must be combined with follow-up questions to provide insight into passive behaviors: to learn what someone was actually reading while at the display; to identify the number of choices actually considered; and to ascertain the specific elements that attracted a person's attention.

Moreover, to the extent that environmental and situational effects can greatly impact consumer behavior, it is incumbent upon the researcher to spread observations across locations and time periods. The patience or impatience of a customer waiting to be served in a retail environment might be significantly influenced by whether the person is on the way to work, on a lunch break, or on the way home.

Key points of ethnography are:
• Use ethnography for studying
• Use ethnography for studying active behaviors.
• Observations, by themselves, have little or no value for diagnosing passive behaviors.
• Spread observations over several locations and time periods.

Intercept interviews — Learn by asking in the shopping aisles

Do you want to know what's important to your brand's customers? Ask them questions as soon as they finish shopping. First observe them—as unobtrusively as possible—and then interview them before they have a chance to forget the details of their shopping experience. And, even though most shoppers today are in a rush, it is amazing how willing they are to trade five minutes of their time for a five-dollar coupon.

As any good researcher knows the GIGO (garbage in/garbage out) principle applies to the creation of survey instruments. The average consumer is all too willing to offer their unqualified opinions about what works and what doesn't. As such, questions should never put the consumer in a position to respond as an art director. Rather, survey questions should focus on factual information or opinions that address end results rather than elements.

For example, questions about signs, identity systems, and other graphic elements should probe for what was remembered—not what the consumer liked or disliked about the color, typestyle or iconography. Moreover, while questions should ask on an unaided basis what was noticed, questions should also probe what the stimulus says or suggests to them about the benefits of shopping at that store, the products and services they would expect to find there, and the types of people who shop there.

Key points of intercept interviews are:
• Ask factual questions about behavior while the behavior is still fresh in their mind.
• Don't put the consumer in a position to play "expert" about graphics or copy.
• Consumers are not behavioral psychologists—don't ask them to explain their own behavior.

Virtual simulation — Dive deeper with digital

Whereas on-premise interviews afford marketers easy access to their current customers, such questionnaires must necessarily be kept short. For more intense investigations or interviews longer than 10 minutes, a surrogate is needed—electronic/digital simulation. For this approach, specific customer zones within an existing retail location are photographed.

Note that every retail environment consists of a series of unique customer operating zones or "touch points." Customers interact with and behave differently in each of these zones. When creating a virtual simulation of a retail experience, alternative in-store communications and designs are digitally superimposed over the original images.

These design alternatives can then be shown projected almost life-size via an LCD projector. A skilled moderator then discusses these displays in focus groups as the moderator "walks" respondents through the simulated store visit. To optimize this approach with customers, consumers should be recruited in the store after being observed and briefly interviewed.

Online research — Cost-effectively tapping non-users

Current customers may only represent a small fraction of the people that you could be serving. Moreover, studying your current customers doesn't help you diagnose why you have lost customers or have been rejected by others. You may only be guessing about how non-customers view you versus the competition.

With the growth on online research panels, it is possible to collect data at reasonable costs from non-customers within defined trading areas. This tool works best when you can target specific potential customers that fit certain profiles. Researchers screen random panelists who are potential customers and have the demographic profile of your targeted prospects. These subjects are invited to participate in an online study. Once at the host website, additional screening questions are administered to assure the panelists relevance for the study.

Once screened for eligibility, the remaining questionnaire can use a variety of open- and closed-ended probes to study the same issues covered by shopping mall intercepts or by telephone surveys. It is not uncommon for consumers who belong to on-line panels to spend 20 minutes or longer answering your questions—typically with more patience than in other research venues. This online approach tends to get more accurate results than some more traditional or more expensive research techniques.

Key points of online research are:
• Screening for the right consumer candidates is critical.
• Many online "users" will spend a good amount of time answering questions.
• Ask open-ended questions that might reveal real motivations of a consumer's purchase decision.

Retail environment focus groups — Qualitative learning

Everyone is generally familiar with focus groups as a qualitative tool for stimulating hypotheses. Successful outcomes require a skilled and prepared moderator. One basic skill is to keep all members of a focus group involved, and to prevent individuals from dominating a session or swaying the opinions of others. But the best retail moderators not only understand the subject matter and the objectives underlying the sessions, they also have more than a passing sense of how retail environments are different from products and their packaging. Two of the retail-specific probing techniques that optimize learning include "visualizations" and "the four corner approach."

Visualizations. The moderator asks focus group participants to close their eyes and lead a tour of a store. On a random basis, each member of a group is asked to help recall a visit to a particular store—articulating what they see (or expect to see) as they turn into the parking lot; walk to the store; enter the front door; study the offerings; etc. What shoppers remember can reveal a great deal about what messages the environment is sending out.

The Four Corner Approach. This forces the consumer to eliminate location and traffic patterns as excuses for not using a particular store or brand. The researcher can get directly to the consumer's underlying impressions of a store. The moderator creates a mythical intersection with competitors located on each corner. It is just as easy to make a left turn as a right turn, and there is ample parking in the lots. The moderator then encourages consumers to delve deeply into the other characteristics that drive shopping decisions.

Tachistoscope — Assessing impact and visibility

What do people see when they are driving down a visually cluttered street? Do they even see your store or sign? At what point can they read your sign? What do they think or feel about your brand in a blink of an eye? These are all questions that can be addressed by using a tachistoscope (or t-scope) to assist in research programs.

Consumers are exposed to a variety of scenes and situations, and they are often cluttered and confusing. To research their ability to recognize your store or brand, there is no need to bring the consumer to the actual location. By projecting nearly life-size images, the consumer can be probed to identify what they see or remember. More importantly, by superimposing design alternatives into this virtual environment, researchers can determine the relative impact of various design alternatives.

The t-scope also allows the researcher to control the amount of time that a scene is shown to a consumer (e.g., one second, two seconds, etc.). This is used to assess a brand's impact, or how quickly a brand can be seen in a competitively cluttered environment. Controlling the length of exposure also gives the researcher an opportunity to examine recall as well as the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings that are evoked. Repeatedly exposing the same street scene from progressively shorter distances simulates what a driver would see as they approach a retail location.

A major advantage of the t-scope approach over other physiometric techniques is its simplicity and flexibility. It is portable to any research location and tends to be the least artificial, or lab-like, environment for capturing consumers' reactions.

Key points about tachistoscopes:
• Calibrate visual acuity to assure that independent cells of consumers are properly balanced; for example, each design alternative has been evaluated by similar numbers of fast and slow perceivers.
• Impact alone should never be the criterion for choosing a winning design or branding idea (a dramatically different new logo or new set of graphics cannot be expected to have more impact than a well-established system).
• Although other sophisticated techniques (e.g., eye tracking) purport to do the same things as a t-scope, they require more of a laboratory situation.

Howland Blackiston is a principal at King-Casey (, a retail consulting and design firm in Westport, CT. Norm Leferman is founder of Leferman Associates Inc. (, a custom marketing research firm in Stamford, CT.

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